Nation-Building 101

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The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2004

State of the Union

Nation-Building 101

The chief threats to us and to world order come from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Learning how to fix such states—and building necessary political support at home—will be a defining issue for America in the century ahead

by Francis Fukuyama


"I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war."

—George W. Bush, October 11, 2000

"We meet here during a crucial period in the history of our nation, and of the civilized world. Part of that history was written by others; the rest will be written by us ... Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more." (italics added)

—George W. Bush, February 26, 2003

he transformation of George W. Bush from a presidential candidate opposed to nation-building into a President committed to writing the history of an entire troubled part of the world is one of the most dramatic illustrations we have of how the September 11 terrorist attacks changed American politics. Under Bush's presidency the United States has taken responsibility for the stability and political development of two Muslim countries—Afghanistan and Iraq. A lot now rides on our ability not just to win wars but to help create self-sustaining democratic political institutions and robust market-oriented economies, and not only in these two countries but throughout the Middle East.

The fact is that the chief threats to us and to world order come today from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Weak or absent government institutions in developing countries form the thread linking terrorism, refugees, AIDS, and global poverty. Before 9/11 the United States felt it could safely ignore chaos in a far-off place like Afghanistan; but the intersection of religious terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has meant that formerly peripheral areas are now of central concern.

Conservatives never approved of the so-called "humanitarian interventions" undertaken during the 1990s, including those in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Liberals, for their part, remain unconvinced by the Bush Administration's rationale for its invasion of Iraq. But whether for reasons of human rights or of security, the United States has done a lot of intervening over the past fifteen years, and has taken on roughly one new nation-building commitment every other year since the end of the Cold War. We have been in denial about it, but we are in this business for the long haul. We'd better get used to it, and learn how to do it—because there will almost certainly be a next time.

Critics of nation-building point out that outsiders can never build nations, if that means creating or repairing all the cultural, social, and historical ties that bind people together as a nation. What we are really talking about is state-building—that is, creating or strengthening such government institutions as armies, police forces, judiciaries, central banks, tax-collection agencies, health and education systems, and the like.

This process has two very separate phases, both of them critical. The first involves stabilizing the country, offering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, rebuilding the infrastructure, and jump-starting the economy. The second phase begins after stability has been achieved, and consists of creating self-sustaining political and economic institutions that will ultimately permit competent democratic governance and economic growth.

The first of these phases is well understood, and although difficult, it lies within the capability of both the United States and the broader international community. (The United States Agency for International Development has a very spotty record in promoting long-term economic growth but is actually pretty good at delivering humanitarian assistance.) The second phase, the transition to self-sustaining development, is far more challenging; and it is even more important in the long run. The key word is "self-sustaining": unless outside powers are able to leave behind stable, legitimate, relatively uncorrupt indigenous state institutions, they have no hope of a graceful exit.

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